Bolivarian Trade Alternative to FTAA for the Americas
(Alternativa Bolivariana por las Américas in Spanish)

by Carolina Cositore

Z Magazine, February 2006


There is a shift in the prevailing winds coming from the South, above all in South America and the Caribbean. The transformations in progress can be difficult to understand because they are different in each country-the revolution in Venezuela is not the same as the changes in Argentina, which are not the same as that in Brazil, Uruguay, or Bolivia.

Changes are also occurring at different levels, with grassroots demands for more participation and control over what governs their lives interacting with new types of leaders or party structures that attempt to respond through their own particular culture and perspective. These leaders and infrastructures must also respond to the "keepers"-the WTO, IMF, and the like.

ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (Alternativa Bolivariana por las Américas in Spanish), is emblematic of the transformation occurring in Latin America and it offers a way for the U.S. to get a handle on "what these people want." The brainchild of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, it is an alternative to the U.S.- backed Free Trade of the Americas (FTAA) treaty that is deservedly dying a slow death as it does not mean free or fair trade.

Rather, it would be a death sentence for agriculture. For many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, agriculture is more than fundamental to the survival of those nations, it is a way of life and culture, determining ways of relating with nature, as well as providing food security. Real free trade in agriculture means eliminating U.S. subsidies and corralling other practices that have the equivalent effect on food exports-something the U.S. is loath to do.

Another sensitive topic in the FTAA is that of intellectual property, most particularly the 13 giant drug transnationals that control 80 percent of the patents, as well as the 5 agrochemical corporations that control the global seed market. The FTAA would give an advantage to the mammoth (U.S.) transnationals and leave the South without its advantages of genetic diversity and the traditional knowledge of the indigenous people. It would do this because, without patents on pharmaceutical products, domestic markets have been able to offer generic medicines at prices much below those offered by companies with patents.

In response, the World Trade Organization now requires that medicines be patented.

Countries such as India and Egypt, which have acceded to this demand for intellectual property rights, have seen the giant pharmaceutical corporations first eliminate competition and then raise prices out of the reach of ordinary folk. Since the patent system does not recognize the knowledge and resources of local people, the transnationals can appropriate natural products used free or at low cost for centuries and sell them back at exorbitant prices. This also has the important effect of reducing genetic variety of many of the principal food crops by using exclusively genetically manipulated seeds as well as agrochemicals, thus drastically reducing auto-adaptation and regeneration of ecological systems.

Another area of contention is the essential services that many people (not in the U.S.) consider rights. Such necessary services as health care, education, drinking water, transportation, mail, as well as labor legislation and consumer protection, would pass to private hands under FTAA. Those countries that have privatized such basics have had transnationals enter and transform citizens into consumers, very many of whom can then no longer afford the services at all.

Although Venezuelan President Chavez (and other Latin American leaders) recognize the importance of more trade and support to development in the hemisphere, he is no dummy, and seeing the road to FTAA paved with more poverty, unemployment, and sparse development, he has proposed an alternative that would encourage trade negotiations in sub-regional blocs to support growth, balance asymmetries, and promote economic and social development.

ALBA is symbolic of the growing cooperation between nations, not limited to the economic. One important example is the strengthening of cooperative ties in different sectors in MERCOSUR (the Southern Common Market) that encompasses Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay-soon to add oil-rich Venezuela, plus Chile and Bolivia, as associate members.

To balance asymmetries among countries and to construct ALBA, Venezuela proposes Compensatory Funds or Structural Convergence Funds to significantly reduce the lopsidedness between nations and productive sectors. ALBA proposes that the nations in the region jointly identify the criteria to be used to judge disequilibrium and give a clear definition of what is a "smaller economy"-using such measures as population, resources, production, composition of exports, level of industrial development, per capita income, and levels of poverty.

With those criteria recognized, resources would be directed to intra-national sectors to improve efficiency and transparency. In contrast to the FTAA, ALBA proposes that elimination of poverty and social marginality take precedence, including human, labor, and gender rights, as well as defense of the environment and integration.

Thus far under ALBA Venezuela has signed contracts with Caribbean countries to supply oil under very favorable conditions of payment and, in some cases (such as Cuba), part of the oil payment has been literacy teachers and medical teams for the Venezuelan poor. Another important ALBA program, co-sponsored with Cuba, is Operation Miracle, permitting thousands of poor people-initially just from Venezuela, but now from Guatemala, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Panama-to come to Cuba for eye surgery for cataracts and other severe ocular diseases. The program now has surgical centers in Bolivia and Venezuela as well.

These certainly don't sound like programs and treaties that have come before. This is because ALBA embodies a new kind of unity based on positive values.


Carolina Cositore (Sitrin) is a translator and journalist in Havana, Cuba where she has lived since 1998. A life-long progressive, she is a mother of five, grandmother of six, and has been a teacher and social worker.

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